As poachers slaughter thousands of African elephants, legal ivory traders fear they will soon be forced out of business by soaring prices and growing public hostility.

"We too are becoming an endangered species," joked John Ilsley, a Johannesburg-based buyer at an ivory auction here recently.His friend from London, British buyer Tom Friedlein, said: "When I go to parties now I just say I'm in import-export, otherwise I might get thumped. If I said I was peddling drugs for a living, I wouldn't get a worse reception."

Ilsley, Friedlein and several other regular buyers had come to Harare to attend what is probably Africa's last legal ivory auction, held once or twice a year at the headquarters of Zimbabwe's National Parks.

Laid out in lots on the asphalt in the April sunshine were five tons of tusks, each weighed, numbered and listed in a catalogue. Auctioneer Ian Ferreira climbed onto his stool and opened the bidding.

"Come along, gentlemen. You've come all this way, you must take something home," he urged.

About half the ivory was embargoed, meaning it cannot be exported before being worked. It was snapped up by local craftsmen such as Patrick Mavros, Zimbabwe's best-known ivory sculptor, for up to $70 a pound.

The remainder was free for export and fetched up to twice as much. Big pairs of tusks weighing about 110 pounds went for $135 to $160 a pound.

In less than two hours the sale was over and Ferreira had netted $700,000 for Zimbabwe's state coffers.

The ivory, sold only to registered buyers under tight control, mostly comes from culling of elephants in Zimbabwe's National Parks.

Export and import permits are approved by the Swiss-based headquarters of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

But the days of Zimbabwe's legal ivory market may be numbered.

"Prices were a good 25 percent up from last July. By next October they will be up by the same amount again," said Friedlein.

Ivory is used for making piano keys, but the bulk of the demand comes from Hong Kong and Japan, where the tusks are made into intricate traditional carvings.

Rising prices and dwindling supplies are only one side of problem for the traders.

In North America and Europe public feeling against all forms of trade in wildlife products is running high, whether it involves elephant tusks or baby seal pelts.

"The legal trade is almost out of business," said Friedlein.

The problem is that even with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, too much poached ivory is legalized by governments.

The traders believe the trend in Europe and North America toward tighter and tighter controls will continue.

"I don't think the answer is to ban it, or it will go underground like the drug trade," Friedlein commented.

His pessimism is shared by the Swiss-based World Wide Fund for Nature, whose president, Charles de Haes, last month launched an $18-million plan to save the African elephant.

"There seems little doubt that conventional trade controls are failing," he said. Poachers are halving Africa's elephant population roughly every 10 years. Elephant numbers have fallen from two million in 1970 to 700,000 today.

Animal lovers might wonder why, when the problem is so serious, elephants are still being legally killed.

The answer is that while poachers have cut a swathe through elephant populations in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, Mozambique and Sudan, the elephant numbers in Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa are either stable or growing.